By Tiago Zortea.
Ten years ago, in the second year of my undergraduate course in Psychology, I came across a short book chapter that caused me to rethink many of the ways in which I understood mental health: The actress, the priest, and the psychoanalyst: The knife sharpeners, written by the Brazilian Professor of Social Psychology Luis Antonio Baptista. Baptista uses the examples of an actress, a priest and a psychoanalyst to explore how ‘public opinion makers’ can indirectly contribute to intolerance and violence against those who they do not consider ‘standard’, ‘holy’ or ‘normal’ respectively. According to the author’s metaphor, they are not directly involved in these people’s death, but they ‘sharpen the knives of the crimes’.
Since then, I have asked myself many times whether I am a ‘knife sharpener’. Do the things I do and say, in some sense, contribute to excluding people from society? Am I categorising people into personality profiles or groups of symptoms that mean they identify themselves as being either ‘normal’ or ‘pathological’? What kind of approach do I take towards mental health and what are the consequences of this approach in people’s lives? The more I study, the more concerns I have about the implications of my words on people, especially on the general public. Diagnosis criteria can be easily misunderstood, particularly when the topic is mental health. It is critically important to be careful when talking about psychiatric diagnosis in a public forum (e.g., on television, at public engagement events). It is from misunderstandings and insensitive perspectives on mental health that popular and stigmatising notions of ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ are born. In 2014, Professor Peter Kinderman, President-Elect of the British Psychological Society published a fantastic book entitled “A prescription for psychiatry: Why we need a whole new approach to mental health and wellbeing”. Among several issues regarding mental health, Kinderman alerts us to how problematic certain labelling practices can be and suggests we should stop dealing with “people’s distress as merely the symptom of diagnosable illness and instead develop a more appropriate system for describing and defining people’s emotional problems” (p. 48).
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Tiago Zortea (@zortea_tiago) is a Clinical Psychologist, MSc Psychology & Human Ethology, and a PhD student in the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory, University of Glasgow (email@example.com).